WITH the cost of construction materials going through the roof in China, Cenxi county in Guangxi province is planning to exploit its 2.1-billion-cubic metre reserves of red granite. ''Less than 0.1 per cent of our granite mines - or 1.2 million cubic metres of granite - has been extracted. We still have a huge reserve. So we do not mind lowering the price in order to attract more business,'' said Chen Chuxun, the county's party secretary. Cenxi's little-known red granite mines were uncovered in 1985 and first excavated in 1990. Despite facing many difficulties, county leaders are determined to promote the industry. Mr Chen said Cenxi was giving priority to the approval of foreign ventures for granite excavation, including a speeding-up of red tape and tax cuts. However, the industry is still in its infancy. Lack of technology, development funds and sophisticated transport networks are the major barriers. Cenxi is 94 kilometres north of Wuzhou port, one of the biggest shipping ports in Guangxi province. It takes three hours to transport the granite by lorry. The county has a gross area of 2,835 square kilometres, of which 167 sq km are granite mines. With a population of 680,000, more than 10 per cent of the workforce are miners. The mines are located in the western sector of the county and cover the villages of Malu, Zhangmu, Cencheng, Nuotong and Sanbao. According to a spokesman for Guangxi Wearnes Stone Materials, a foreign joint venture company, it costs US$2 to US$3 and one to two days to ship a cubic metre of granite to Hongkong, while it costs 10 yuan (about HK$13) to take it to Guangzhou and 25 yuan to Shanghai by train. The first granite mine was opened in 1985 by a Japanese businessman. But it was not aggressively exploited until 1991 when demand for granite began to increase. So far, 128 mines have been opened and more than 500 granite factories set up, of which seven mines and 36 factories are foreign joint ventures. ''The granite industry is our focused development,'' said Li Ming, the county's deputy party secretary. He said a slab of Cenxi's red granite slab sold for US$45 per square metre while a similar Sichuan product fetched US$70. Last year, Cenxi processed 70,000 cubic metres of red granite worth 280 million yuan, 21 per cent of the 1.35 billion yuan of industrial and agricultural output. This year, the government plans to process 100,000 cubic metres with an estimated value of 500 million yuan. Seventy per cent of the products are for the domestic sale, while 30 per cent are shipped to Hongkong, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Thailand. ''Of course, we want to tap more foreign businesses and earn more foreign currency. It will help us to upgrade our technology,'' said Mr Li. Presently, China's mining and processing facilities for the rock appear to be primitive. Cenxi has 1,000 China-standard production lines for polishing and only four Italian production lines. ''I would like to pursue Italian technology. But it is much more expensive,'' said Mr Chen. It costs US$1.5 million to set up an Italian line, compared with 100,000 yuan for a Chinese equal. However, each Italian line can polish 100,000 cubic metres of granite annually while a Chinese line can only polish 1,000 cubic metres. The county is building a transportation network. Although the transport infrastructure is still inadequate, development is advanced, compared with other counties in Guangxi. Cenxi trade delegations are also actively promoting the county's products. A trade fair was held in June in Wuhan and two more are scheduled for Shengyang and Guangzhou. It will also exhibit its products in Hongkong's Shun Tak Centre in December.